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Cherokee County WWII War Stories

CARL O. BENSON

THE SAGA OF A PRISONER OF WAR (based on an interview with Carl done by Donna Kauffman) - On December 7, 1941, carrier based Japanese planes attacked the American Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  With that act, a state of war existed between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan.  Within a few days, the United States was officially at War with all of the Axis powers.

On that Sunday in 1941, 19 year old Carl O. Benson was working on is parents' farm near Marcus, IA.  Neither Carl nor his parents Gust and Ida Benson realized, at that moment, how this event was to effect the life of young Carl.

Carl gave a great deal of consideration as to where his duty lay.  He felt that he had a duty to his country that he had to fulfill, and he wanted to do his share in defending the nation.  At the time, he thought the War would be over in a year or so, as did many others.  He enlisted in the U.S. Army on April 11, 1942 and was assigned to the infantry.

After enlistment, he was assigned to Camp Claiborne, LA; which at that time, had a reputation for swamps and snakes.  At Camp Claiborne Carl underwent almost a year of basic training; which emphasized physical fitness, learning to become a soldier and the military way of life, handling weapons, and walking guard posts.

Basic equipment included a rifle, uniforms for seasonal wear, shoes, boots, and the usual equipment that a foot soldier carries on his person.  Some of the recruits were also issued knives.

Carl remembers that the recruits were especially warned to beware of snakes, which included quite a variety.  If a trainee was in need of replacement  for any of his equipment, he was to go see the top sergeant.  "The food was substantial " Carl recalls, "except milk was not as plentiful as we were accustomed to at home."  The trainees were expected to maintain military bearing and act like soldiers at all times.

After completion of his basic training, Carl boarded a troop train and headed for the embarkation camp of Fort Dix, NJ.  From Fort Dix he boarded a troop ship and sailed to a camp in England.  From England, he shipped to North Africa to take part in the Allied Invasion of North Africa, known as "Operation Torch." Once in Algeria, Carl was led to the front lines.

Carl recalls, "All of a sudden were in the War...fighting in mountain terrain.  There were no fox holes, jut hills completely covered with rocks.  Suddenly, we were fighting the enemy, doing our est with the equipment and training we had acquired."

It was in the vicinity of Laid Pass that Carl found himself surrounded and confronted from all sides by enemy troops.  Carl and others were captured by German troops.  "I laughed, " Carl says, "because I did not understand one word they were saying.  One of the German soldiers attacked me with his bayonet, because of this, and drove the bayonet into my right side.  I was treated by our own medics, who had also been captured; and later by German doctors."

Among Carl's mementos are a copy of the telegram received by his parents on March 30, 1943, announcing to them that he was missing in action; the telegram telling his parents that he was a prisoner of war of the Italians, dated April 19, 1943; and a faded Italian official Prisoner of War post card, printed on poor quality paper, from Carl to his parents...telling them that he was in an Italian P.O.W. Camp.  Thus was officially documented the beginning of Carl Benson's period of captivity by the Axis powers.

He was to remain a prisoner of the Italians, and then the Germans, until the end of the War with Germany.  Carl is remarkably free of bitterness toward his captors.  After his wound was healed, he was put to work on a farm in Germany.  Her he spent 16 months working as a laborer. He states that it was a regular German farm where good food was plentiful.  When he received letters from home, the pages were covered with the heavy black marks of the censor's pen.  He only learned what the enemy wanted him to.

The Italian Government surrendered to the allies in 1943, bu by that time Carl had been sent to Germany and was a prisoner of the Germans.  He states that he was never abused while a prisoner.  On the farm, a "friendly atmosphere developed between the prisoners and their captors.  For his work he received 10 cents per day, $3.00 per month.  This money was used to buy smokes, which were very inadequate.  Carl says that they really appreciated the Red Cross and the American tobacco company.  Every three months Care packages containing, among other things, American cigarettes.  "We shared among ourselves", he recalls.  Most of their leisure time was spent in smoking.  This was almost their only relaxation.

Another duty performed by the prisoners working on the farm was the digging of trenches.  These trenches were dug side by side.  Later, the prisoners found out that these trenches were to be used as graves for future burials.  The bodies placed in them were tagged for identification by placing their name tags wedged in their mouths.  This was so that the bodies could later be identified, if the need arose. During the burials a German official stood by, recording statistics.  What, or who, was inside the wooden boxes placed in the trenches, the prisoners didn't know and did not inquire.

Much to the prisoner's surprise, shortly after the Battle of Okinawa word arrived that they were to be released.  The Germans had surrendered unconditionally to the allies.

In July of 1945, P.F.C. Benson was homebound to the land he had enlisted to defend.  Among the decorations awarded him by a grateful government, was the Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal, and others.  Two items among his mementos have special meaning.  One is a letter from the adjutant general announcing to his parents that their son, P.F. C Carl Benson had been returned to allied control.  This was official jargon meaning Carl had been liberated from the Prison Camp and was back in allied hands.  The second is a telegram from Carl, himself, to his parents, announcing that he was back in the U.S.A. and would be home soon.

He returned to America and eventually was stationed at Jefferson Barracks, MO.  In August of 1945, he received his discharge from the United States Army.

Adjusting to civilian life was not easy, he recalls.  Shortly after he arrived home, Cherokee had a parade.  "I was standing on the corner near the old Wolff store.  An airplane flew overhead and made a loud noise.  My first reaction was to protect myself.  I lodged myself against the store building.  Everything was still fresh in my mind, and I reacted automatically."

Carl was one of three sons of Gust and Ida Benson to serve in World War II.  His patriotic response to an attack on the United States was typical of hundreds of thousands of young men who rushed to join the army to help defend the nation in her time of need.

He was savagely bayoneted by a German soldier after he was taken prisoner, and he spent almost two years as a prisoner of war.  Yet he harbors no deep resentment against the enemy.

Thank  you, Carl Benson, for your sacrifices during the War and for sharing some of your experiences with us.

 Source: Cherokee County Historical Society Newsletter, Vol 15, Num 1, Jan 1980, Sec V, Pg 10.  

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